“Sankofa” is a word and symbol that means to “return and collect it.” It comes from the Akan people of Ghana who use it as a warning. Sankofa is a reminder to search through the groves of the past and bring back lessons, principles and stories to plant the seeds for the future. The Akan adage is a cautionary tale; if one does not remember their humble beginnings, they are doomed to fail.
The Sankofa is pictured as a bird whose head is faced in the opposite direction of his body and the bird carries an egg on his back that represents the past. The bird reaches back for the days gone by, symbolizing that even as one progresses, periodically one must make a point to return to history to make a better future.
One of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt’s very own, “returned to collect,” some valuable lessons. Former plane captain, Chief Mass Communication Specialist Herbert Banks, went back to his roots with The Red Ripper Line Division of Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 11.
From Washington, D.C., Banks enlisted in the Navy, August 5, 1998, as an undesignated airman under the pretext he would be able to work for each work center to decide what job he would like to strike for. When he checked into his first command, he was in for a surprise.
“I checked into VF 32’s Tomcat squadron after boot camp and was sent straight to the line shack to be a plane captain,” said Banks. “Most of your air rates spend time in the line shack before you head to their division, so that’s where I went first.”
Banks admits his first tour was quite a rude awakening.
“It’s a lot of hard work that I was not accustomed to. It wasn’t until the end of my time there that I truly appreciated the experience,” said Banks. “I was with VF 32 for three years, but for a city boy like me, those three years toting those chains and prepping that aircraft were definitely challenging.”
Following his tour as a brown shirt, Banks became a photographer’s mate after striking into the rate. Since then photographer’s mates have merged with journalists, lithographer’s mates and draftsmen to become mass communication specialists.
Banks gradually climbed the ranks and pinned on chief’s anchors in 2011. Then, after serving as an instructor to MCs at the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md., Banks took orders to TR as the media department departmental leading chief petty officer (DLCPO). That is when fate and opportunity introduced themselves and Banks met VFA 11’s Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic Thomas McVick.
“I talk to VFA 11’s line division chief in the chiefs mess all the time,” said Banks. “When he first embarked, I saw his brown shirt and sparked a conversation up with him. Whenever I see a Sailor in a brown shirt in the [passageways] it means a little bit to me. I feel a lot of pride. So when I saw Chief McVicker down in the Chief’s Mess I asked him if he’d let me come up [to the flight deck] and get my hands dirty again.”
McVicker was happy to have Banks spend a day with his squadron and said he shared his admiration for the men and women in brown jerseys.
“The bedrock of success here in the Ripper Line Division is simple and clear; pride and professionalism,” McVicker said. “These values are immediately instilled into our Sailors on their first day in the Navy and they define who we are. I couldn’t be more proud of these young Americans. I appreciate Chief Banks taking the time to shine some light on my heroes.”
Before Banks re-joined the line shack crew for a day as a plane captain, he had one request.
“I told Chief [McVicker] that I’d find a way to get from behind my desk on one condition,” Banks said through his laughter. “I had to have my own brown jersey again.”
“It was nostalgic being back in that small shop,” he added. “There’s a bunch of people in a room almost the size of a jail cell. They’re coming and going, there’s night check and day crew. There’s a lot of moving parts: prepping gear, putting on float coats, signing off paperwork. It smells like fuel, oil and hard work.”
Banks met with the crew on the flight deck and didn’t hesitate to jump right in, side by side with the other plane captains. He helped prepare the aircraft and conduct routine maintenance.
“I got to hang out with the crew,” said Banks. “We prepped the jet but once the jet taxis to the catapult, the plane captains have to standby with the chains on their shoulders until the jet takes off. Sometimes you can have as many as 10 chains on at a time, weighing 10 pounds apiece. The younger guys were hesitant to let me hold the chains. A lot of them said, ‘No, Chief, I got it.’ But I wanted to feel like a line rat again! They were actually surprised. I helped one Sailor launch a jet and helped another recover a few.”
The line shack ensures the airplane is airworthy and safe to operate before launching the multi-million dollar jet and its pilot off the flight deck. Plane captains play an integral role in the mission and have an incredible amount of responsibility.
VFA 11 plane captain Aviation Ordnance Airman Blake Triplett doesn’t take the responsibility lightly.
“It’s a family – it has to be,” Triplett said. “You can’t afford to not get along. We depend on one another.”
Aviation Machinist’s Mate Airman William Moody, another VFA 11 plane captain, agreed that the squadron’s camaraderie is paramount and he attributes their morale to their leadership.
“From our [leading petty officer] to our chief and the pilots – all of our leadership, they take really good care of us,” said Moody.
Electronics Technician 3rd Class Matthew Holland, also VFA 11 plane captain, said the temporary assigned duty position builds character.
“We’re all different rates but being a plane captain really creates the foundation of whom you really are and who you’ll be in your rate. You have to earn your keep,” said Holland.
Besides his duties as Media’s DLCPO, Banks serves as TR’s mentorship coordinator and what was supposed to be just a day on the flight deck turned into a day of mentorship as Banks offered some words to the crew.
“As hard as the work was and as much as I may have hated it at the time, my time in the line shack is what shaped and molded me into who I am today,” said Banks.
“What I miss most is the camaraderie,” he added. “The teamwork in the line shack is like none other. Everyone is going through the same thing so you have to come together to persevere. That amount of time I spent as a plane captain was truly a beautiful time. We may have had our disagreements amongst each other but when it was time to step on that deck, we got the job done and we did whatever we had to do to help each other out.”
After reliving his time as a plane captain, Banks reminded the brown shirts that they are appreciated.
“A lot of people rely on those inspections, that maintenance and all of the surveys they do on the aircraft,” he said. “If those Sailors don’t have a certain amount of pride and respect for what they do, I just want them to know that I do.”
Banks “reached back,” and paid it forward. He said he was glad he was able to meet the Red Rippers of VFA 11 and hoped he was able to pass down some of the lessons he learned in the line shack.
“I appreciate Chief McVicker and the Red Rippers,” said Banks. “They’ve got a good crew up there and I hope they’ll have me back soon. I appreciate them for welcoming me and allowing me to relive the moments that I didn’t appreciate before. Being in the line shack gave me the work ethic I have, and I am the man I am today because of the time I spent as a brown shirt. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Danica M. Sirmans, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Public Affairs